State, federal officials alerted by 6th-grader's report Calif. boy documents use of lead in food cans

March 23, 1997|By KNIGHT-RIDDER NEWS SERVICE

OAKLAND, Calif. -- Sixth-grader Cason Schmit hoped his science project would capture a little attention. He succeeded beyond his wildest dreams.

His experiment showing lead content in tin cans has triggered a state investigation, raised health questions and made him a minor celebrity in the news media.

He also won a blue ribbon.

For his science project at Joaquin Miller Elementary School, the 13-year-old investigated whether mom-and-pop grocery stores sell food in lead-soldered cans -- a violation of federal law.

Two decades ago, 90 percent of all canned foods in the United States were in such containers. But experts discovered that lead was leaking into food, and U.S. manufacturers stopped using lead-soldered cans in 1991.

But such cans could still be imported, and they remained prevalent in small ethnic stores catering to people who use imported foods as staples in their diets.

When lead is absorbed into the bloodstream, it can cause widespread injury to the body, including the central nervous system, red blood cells and kidneys. It is especially harmful to the developing brain of infants and children.

The federal Food and Drug Administration took tougher action in December 1995, banning the import of all lead-soldered cans.

Grocers had until June to sell off existing stock, after which it became illegal to have such cans on the shelves.

In stepped young Schmit with his science project. First he learned to identify what lead-soldered cans look like: "There is a thick, wide seam and it has solder smears or dents that look like they have been punched on purpose."

Then he went to a market in Oakland's Chinatown and purchased a few cans that he deemed suspicious.

With the help of a private laboratory, his experiments concluded that these were indeed lead-soldered cans that had contaminated the food inside. He found evidence of lead in rice pudding, lotus-nut paste and bamboo shoots from China, as well as ham from Denmark.

After documenting his findings in a 60-page report, he whipped off copies to the FDA and state and county health departments.

Unlike many adults who write to government bureaucracies and never hear a word, a surprised Schmit received a response.

"They were calling me up and sending me letters and saying they were discussing my project during their staff meetings -- stuff that just made me say, 'Wow,' " he said.

Pub Date: 3/23/97

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